If you are grieving the loss of a loved one or a relationship what are the things you are most likely to hear from well meaning friends, relatives and colleagues? I bet they include some if not all of the following….
“There are plenty more fish in the sea”
“You are young enough to find another ….”
“You’ll feel better in a few weeks/months”
“Come and have a drink and forget about it for a while”
“I know how you feel….” and then a story about their own experience
We all experience loss at times in our lives. Whether it is the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job we loved or a sense of ourselves and identity as we move into a new phase in our lives through illness or parenthood for example. Any change involves a loss of some sort as we say goodbye to things that once were and hello to a new way of being. Some of these changes are harder than others. Sadness, heartache and pain are often the accompanying feelings to such times and grief is the word that best describes the emotional response to a loss.
For some reason though our society has evolved into feeling deeply uncomfortable in dealing with grief. We are not taught how to respond to our own and other people’s grief in a way that is helpful. Instead we respond in ways that somehow don’t resonate with how we are feeling and these ways are passed on so that it becomes the only way we know despite feeling that it is not quite enough.
In The Grief Recovery Handbook the authors suggest that there are a number of myths around grief that are unhelpful to the way we deal with loss. By understanding the myths around grief and by considering some alternative ways to understand and deal with your own and others grief then maybe we can find some new ways to supporting each other with an experience that is lived by all of us at some time in our lives.
Myth 1: Don’t feel bad
In today’s current climate of positive psychology and the happiness movement the idea that you are allowed to feel bad may seem a step too far. Now I love positive psychology and think there is a lot to be said for gratitude, kindness and appreciating the here and now. Reminding yourself that you are grateful for the warm hug from your youngest child or appreciating the bright sun on a cold crisp day is wonderful but if inside unresolved grief is chipping away at your very core, you still feel bad. Fact. Telling yourself not to feel bad will only help to a certain degree and other people reminding you what you have to be grateful for can make you want to sign up for an anger management course. Sometimes you just need and want to feel bad and need and want someone to sit with you while you feel that way. Or maybe you just want to be alone, after all isn’t that what we are meant to do when we feel bad?
Myth 2: Grieve Alone
Have you ever thought that you needed to allow a grieving person some “space”? How often were you told as a child: “go and cry in your room.” Emotions associated with sadness, pain and distress are expected to be dealt with on your own and yet the connection of another person we trust can be so beneficial in feeling safe and attached in the frightening and lonely space of grief and emotional distress. We never feel shame in laughter and happiness and we share this with others so why is it that sadness and tears are perceived as something embarrassing to be experienced alone? Both are emotions, it’s just that they have been labelled positive and negative. Laughter and crying are the release of felt emotion and sometimes we laugh when we cry and cry when we laugh. The two are more closely linked than you might have thought. Sharing emotions and connecting with others creates bonds, builds trust and strengthens relationships. Hiding away pain and sadness increases feelings of isolation and desperation and perpetuates this idea in society that we can not and should not express emotion that might make others feel a tad uncomfortable.
Myth 3: Replace the loss
If your child loses its teddy then you buy a new one right? When the dog dies you can get another one can’t you, it’s just a dog? If you lose a pregnancy you are told its ok, you can get pregnant again and even if you lose a loved one chances are some of you may have been told by well meaning friends or relatives that in time you might find someone new or to get a dog or new hobby? Being told you can replace the loss with a new person, animal or activity does not help you with your grief. The relationship you had with what you have lost was unique to you and this needs to be acknowledged and remembered.
Myth 4: Time heals all wounds
If we are using the analogy of time healing all wounds I would beg to disagree, sometimes wounds get infected and need treatment, sometimes they cause septicaemia and make you really sick, sometimes they need a skin graft. Left to time these wounds would not heal but with intervention they are helped. It is not time that heals the wound it is what you do with that time. Some people find effective coping strategies and ways of grieving that allows them to begin to live with the memory of what was lost without the associated pain and others find other ways to fill the time using drink, drugs, exercise or work to expend the energy and emotion of their loss. Hearing that the first christmas or birthday is the hardest and then it gets better or that after 2 years you should start to feel better is not helpful because what happens when you wait a year or two, believing that it is time alone that will help, and then don’t feel better. Your life is short and precious, how much time are you going to have to wait feeling like this and what else could you have done with that time to start to feel better?
Myth 5: Be Strong
Again the messages we hear from being a child reinforce the need to be strong as we grow up. For men especially the idea that boys don’t cry or talk about their feelings has massive implications for how they deal with challenges and stresses in life. When we fall over we are told to be brave, when we are frightened we are told to get over it and when we are upset we are told to pull ourselves together. Being strong is seen as something positive and vulnerability and weaknesses are to be hidden. In some respects a certain amount of grit and resilience is needed to get through the daily challenges of life. But when a grieving person is told to be strong for their children/partner/mother/father or says they are staying strong for their children/partner/mother/father they are being denied the opportunity to grieve and experience the associated emotions that come with that. Being strong is a survival mechanism and it will allow you to survive but will it allow you to thrive again with the pain of loss ever present?
Myth 6: Keep Busy
People often reassure themselves and others that they are ok because they are keeping busy.
But with that busyness comes mental and physical exhaustion and a lack of self care as you are too busy to look after yourself. Busyness is a good distraction from grief, it may help keep you afloat for a while but being busy will mean that the loss will be felt acutely for a long time and if you don’t wear yourself out with your busyness you will have those closest to you worried for your health.
How else then can we help those who are grieving?
Listen with attention and love.
Let them tell their story, they need to feel heard.
Do not interrupt with your own experience or information. That is yours, not theirs.
Be prepared to allow them to cry or vocalise emotion which you may find uncomfortable.
Offer a hug but don’t force them into it. Hugging and close human connection releases Oxytocin, a powerful hormone that has pain relieving qualities!
Get a tissue, no-one likes snot dripping off the end of their nose!
Catch yourself as you are about to offer a grief myth as a way of trying to make them feel better.
Remember it will most likely make you feel better rather than them.
Also think about how you talk to yourself and your children and whether you are reinforcing messages that perpetuate these myths.
If you have been affected by grief just notice which of these myths are in your own vocabulary and then ask yourself whether it is helpful to your recovery?
I came across the grief recovery method as I looked for ways to deal with my own grief after the sudden death of my father. I am still working on it but it has been beneficial in helping to reduce anger, build acceptance and forgiveness and feel love for my dad through the memories I have without as much pain and anguish on a daily basis. Recovery has not meant forgetting him but it means I can spend time remembering him without tears and when I do cry I accept that it is ok and is part of the process of life and love.
Please share your own thoughts and experiences and get in touch if you would like supportive, empathic coaching around a loss in your own life.